US Jews in turmoil over violence in Israel. American Jews in turmoil. SPEAKING OUT
Anguish. Frustration. Sympathy. Sadness. You can hear it in their voices. You can read it in their columns and advertisements.Skip to next paragraph
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With the uprising of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories in its 12th week, the turmoil in American Jewry is deepening.
For almost 40 years, Israel has stood as a symbol of refuge and survival for the world's 17 million Jews. Although support for the Jewish state has not diminished, the spectacle of Israeli soldiers beating and killing Palestinians has, in the view of some American Jews, compromised the high ideals upon which Israel was founded.
For Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, the past 12 weeks have posed the greatest challenge to him yet as an activist for Jewish and Israeli causes.
``Yes, we're anguishing, but we're not spending all of our energy anguishing,'' Mr. Bookbinder says. ``We're trying to help Americans understand why there are riots.... Don't point the finger of blame at Israel alone.''
American Jews - especially those who are more politically liberal - have never been more vocal in their debate of Israeli policy.
THE first real breaks in the silence came in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, and grew wider with the Iran-contra affair and the Pollard spy case. Last October, before the Palestinian uprising began, the left-of-center American Jewish Congress publicly declared its support for an international conference on Mideast peace, the first time a major American Jewish organization had adopted a position on such a divisive issue as Israeli security.
The trend toward open debate angers some US Jewish leaders, who say the criticism fuels the arguments of Israel's en-emies and could erode overall American support for Israel. Other leaders counter that the debate is a sign that the Israel-diaspora relationship is maturing.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the leader of Reform Judaism, has been one of the most vocal critics of Israeli policy.
``Israel is not just the possession of the Israelis, it's the possession of the Jewish people,'' he says. ``What happens to Israel affects all of us. So we have the duty to speak up. We don't serve them well when we tell them what they want to hear.''
Bookbinder says the debate over the right to debate is an empty one. ``The fact of debating the issue is itself in the public domain,'' he says. ``And what the other side of the argument seems to be saying is `hey, we have a serious problem, but let's not admit it.' They're not helping to keep it under cover by saying that....
``The clich'e is still true: For every three Jews you get four opinions, and they're all going to be expressed,'' Bookbinder says. ``And there's nothing wrong with that, unless you express them without adequate context and compassion and understanding.''
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, agrees that American Jews have the right to debate events in Israel, but to do so publicly is irresponsible. ``We don't pay the consequences of the expression of that opinion,'' he says. ``I don't think it's productive to publicly criticize Israel's actions. When you criticize from the outside, they usually go the other way.''
Not that American Jewish leaders are not telling the Israelis what they think. This week a delegation from the Confer-ence of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is in Israel for its annual visit. Palestinian unrest is high on the agenda. In January, Morris Abram, president of the conference, reportedly had a ``tough discussion'' with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. And last month, the conference reportedly spent several days in heated debate over the wording of a statement that would adequately reflect the unhappiness with Israeli actions some of the members feel.
Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, cites three factors that have encouraged open criticism by Jews: